Sat, Dec 04, 2004 - Page 8 News List

China's newrepression means moredonkey poo

By Nicholas Kristof

For the last century, the title of "most important place in the world" has belonged to the US, but that role seems likely to shift in this century to China.

So what are China's new leaders, President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶), really like?

When Hu and Wen rose to the helm of the Communist Party two years ago, many Chinese hoped they would bring a new openness to a nation that is dynamic economically, but stagnant intellectually. Instead, China has become more repressive.

The repression has now engulfed a member of The New York Times' family. Zhao Yan (趙岩), a researcher for the Beijing bureau of The Times, has been detained by the authorities since September and is not allowed to communicate with his family or lawyers.

Zhao is accused of leaking state secrets, a very serious charge that could lead to a decade in prison. China's government may believe that he was behind the September scoop by The Times' Beijing bureau chief, Joseph Kahn, that China's former president Jiang Zemin (江澤民) was about to retire from his last formal position.

While the Times' policy is, wisely, never to comment on the sources of articles, my own private digging indicates that Zhao was not the source for that scoop. He is innocent of everything except being a fine journalist who, before joining the Times, wrote important articles in the Chinese press about corruption.

Zhao's case is depressingly similar to that of another Chinese journalist, Jiang Weiping (姜維平). He is serving a six-year sentence for "revealing state secrets," even though his real crime was exposing corruption.

"China has changed so much economically, but not politically," Jiang Weiping's wife, Li Yanling (李燕玲), told me. "It's a puzzle to me."

The authorities ordered Li to keep quiet about her husband's arrest, and detained her when she didn't. The couple's daughter, now 15, was traumatized at losing first her father and then her mother to the Chinese prison system. When Li was finally released, the daughter called her constantly from school to make sure that she had not been arrested again.

Zhao's arrest is just the latest in a broad crackdown in China. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 42 journalists are now in prison in China, more than in any other country.

"There was a period of openness, a period of hope, when the new leaders first came to power," said Jiao Guobiao (焦國標), a journalism professor at Pekjing University. "But now they've consolidated power, and everything has closed up again."

Jiao should know. He wrote an essay this year denouncing censorship, and it was immediately censored. Now the government has banned Jiao from teaching.

I've felt this cooling as well. I was planning to visit China this month, but the government has declined to give me a visa. It's the first time I've been refused, and the State Security Ministry may have worried that I would write a column about its unjust imprisonment of Zhao.

I love China, and I share its officials' distaste for those who harm it. That's why I'm angry that hard-liners in Beijing are presenting China to the world as repressive, fragile, tyrannical and backward. They are also undermining China's long-term prospects by gagging its people.

China now dazzles visitors with luxury skyscrapers, five-star hotels and modern freeways. This boom is real and spectacular, but for China to be an advanced nation it needs not only spaceships, but also freedom.

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